I’ve been reading Philip Blond‘s Red Tory. It’s a bit disappointing to be honest. I liked Blond’s critique of state and private sector monopolism when it first appeared in Prospect, but there isn’t much more meat added to the bones in the book.
It’s not the implicit homophobia (implicit by same-sex relationships never being mentioned). Nor the implicit women-should-stay-at-home-and-raise-kids views. I knew to expect all that. It’s the sheer bloody one-sidedness of the polemic.
Take his argument that the welfare state has (disastrously) eroded the ‘little platoons’ of civic society that used to provide welfare. We can all agree that the welfare state has in some ways gone wrong. But to present civic society as the flawless solution is naive. A cursory read of Sennett’s Respect would have informed Blond of the potentially demeaning nature of charity dispensed by civic society, which was one of the reasons for getting the more neutral state to dispense welfare after WWII. Charity can be patronising, judgemental and patchy.
Then take mutualism on the part of the working classes (basically, looking out for one another through joining groups, and pooling assets). Sure, who would argue against a return to more of that. But the problem in the past was that mutual forms of organisation, welfare provision and asset-holding were not the norm, rather the exception. The state took over welfare provision not to destroy mutualism (although this might have been a side effect), but to make up for its rarity.
Finally, take the family. Blond is adamant that the decline of marriage causes broken homes and not the other way round. Let’s let that ride. My problem is that he doesn’t even consider evidence to the contrary of his theses in this area. Evidence like Demos’ report on character which showed no correlation between the acquisition of character capabilities and a child’s parents being married. Nor does he consider any of the downsides of a divorce rate of 10% (which is what it was prior to the 1960s, Blond’s preferred epoch). For example, unhappy spouses trapped in awful marriages; kids screwed up by constant arguing in the home.
In general there is a wilful lack of attention to anything that challenges Blond’s vision of the good society. This seriously undermines the book for me, which showcases Blond’s ambition to win power and influence, rather than his skills as a researcher and thinker. And I am still presuming he has some of the latter, although after reading the book I am not so sure.
One thing you’ll notice if you spend any time at the intersection of policy and social science is that ‘evidence based policy’ leads not only to distortions of evidence, but a focus on process rather than people. Take social workers. They have been given ever more complex form-filling processes in order to stop failures in monitoring and care. But as Madeleine Bunting said yesterday, failures will probably always occur, and anyway, the best way to stop them is not more form filling but a return to psychological astuteness and careful face-to-face interaction. The mistake is to think that because an extremely devious abuser can fool a social worker, we should retreat from fallible human contact to infallible process. This is a mistake because process is infallible as process, but is far more fallible as effective monitoring and care than old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.
With social workers the drive to process is created by a desire for infallibility. But there is a general drive to process across many professions and organisations (including, I have to say, the RSA) which comes out of the principles of social science. If some positive change is down to enthusiastic workers, a good leader, and an ethos of excellence this would be disregarded by social scientists as possessing no ‘external validity’ – that is, no validity outside the idiosyncracies of the lucky hotspot of comity and productivity. So the focus always shifts to process – what generalisable set of manipulations of variables and factors can we pick out and thus roll out more widely.
I am beginning to think that this is a wrong-headed and even pernicious mindset. Precisely what are needed to make positive changes in practices and organisations are what social science can’t measure: great people, in a happy and productive environment with an elusive ethos of excellence. These are what make most things work well.
This would have been obvious to an old-fashioned ‘paternalistic’ firm, or a medievel guild. But in the modern world, especially at the intersection of policy and social science, it is anathema. The story we tell about what makes things work is a story driven by an ever expanding army of consultants and technocrats. Yet the story is a falsehood we would do well to run out of town.
I’m currently waiting on the data to be analysed from some research workshops I’ve carried out recently. The workshops were on decision-making and the brain. I worked with quite a large group of people (who, now the data is in, I can say were a fantastic bunch), and we went through some simple rules on decision-making that come out of a better understanding of the automatic and social nature of how our brains work. I’m not going to second guess the data, but let me just say what the point of the research was.
There is a lot of talk in policy circles about changing behaviour – the wonks have got hold of ideas from behavioural economics, neuroscience and social psychology, and by golly do they want to use them. There has been a collective realisation across civil service/think-tank land (apart from HM Treasury) that everyone has been working with a far too narrow conception of what motivates and influences behaviour. Some in wonk land go further, thinking they have their hands on a new ‘model’ of behaviour they take to arise from these disciplines. This model, they hold, will replace the old one of ‘rational man’.
Herein lie several dangers. First, it is not clear there is anything like a ‘new model’ of behaviour, rather an emerging picture that is more accurate but still contested and limited. Second, there is a feeling amongst some in wonk land that they can now get people to do all the things they couldn’t before because they have ‘the right model now’. This is a classic psychological ploy – over-emphasise the things that give you control over a situation because that way you don’t have to face the hard truth that you have much less control than you would like. Third, all the knowledge is happily kept on the side of the wonks. They want to do loads of clever stuff to ‘nudge’ you into doing what they want. So the ‘new model’ is quite paternalistic.
What we tried to do with our research was to give some of the knowledge that the wonks have to people themselves. Would this empower them to be better informed about their own behaviour? Would they find the knowledge ‘common sense’? Watch this space to find out very shortly.
I came across the CREATE consortium’s Community Allowance proposal recently. The idea is to make it easier for people who are dependent on benefits to carry out work that needs doing in the community, or to be able to declare and be recognised for work they already do. Examples of such work include: care for elderly friends, relatives and neighbours; childcare; odd jobs; cleaning up parks and streets; caretaker job;, lollipop ladies (and gents); and working for local charities. Community Allowance does several things:
It takes day-to-day welfare claim-management out of the hands of the claimant, freeing him or her to spend energies on finding and doing locally-based work. Claimants’ housing benefits are guaranteed and income support cannot be suddenly removed. Rather, a trusted third-sector organisation already working in the community takes on the responsibility of channelling work the claimant’s way, and recording how much work he or she does. This organisation takes care of liaising with benefits agencies. What the claimant gets is the opportunity to be a little better off through doing some work, and to improve his or her community (all work he or she can do under the scheme must be of some benefit to the local community). But perhaps most important, he or she can simply get used to working – building up confidence or perhaps just the idea that the claimant is someone who can work.
What a brilliant idea! One obstacle to long-term claimants finding work is the risk they run in losing substantial benefits, losses that could leave them homeless. For the marginal income-gains they would get from low-paid work such risks will appear too great and employment may actually be eschewed. This is a perfectly rational decision many of us would make in the same situation.
Another problem is that maintaining a benefits claim often becomes an esteem-destroying game where both claimant and Jobcentre staff know they are just ticking boxes. This is a degrading and disheartening experience that ‘institutionalises’ claimants and officials alike. It breeds cynicism and hopelessness. What’s more, the system is designed so that it harasses people into finding work (so-called ‘conditionality’). But in fact, respite from bureaucratic harassment might be more beneficial, allowing claimants to actually do some work.
This policy idea fits with our Social Brain research. On the one hand it would work through individual rational choices – it makes it rational for claimants to undertake work because they feel financially secure. On the other hand, it gives claimants the opportunity to experience working environments – that is, it allows them simply to get used to ‘the feel’ of work, building habits through behaviours, so that changed attitudes might follow. This is the right way to do things: too much policy works on the myth that people change their behaviour after assessing information and changing attitudes first. In fact, often it is attitudes that follow behaviour.
Finally, the Community Allowance builds up people’s stakes in where they live – making a connection between work and community benefit, as well as building positive and valuable social relationships. Of course, like any initiative of this sort there will be hitches and abuses. But we already spend the money on benefits and it’s not as if the present system is free from abuse. Better, surely, to encounter problems trying to do something positive for claimants and the communities in which they live?
There is a fascinating event coming up next week at the RSA called ‘Living by Giving’ (register here if you are interested). The event brings together two of the top organ donation experts in the country, Chris Rudge and Professor James Neuberger, with philosopher A.C. Grayling and the RSA’s very own Matthew Taylor. The topic of discussion will be whether organ donation should be the default for UK citizens, and if so, upon what basis should we argue for such a sea-change? Are we all reciprocal altruists, who, expecting to be helped ourselves, should return the favour we implicitly expect from others? Or is altruism simply a moral good, so that organ donation should be promoted regardless of the expectation of reciprocation? Moreover, why don’t people donate organs? Is it because they think organs might go to others who are undeserving such as alchoholics? Does altruism require us to give to others whatever their circumstances? Or are many people simply self-interested, ‘free-riding’ on other people’s donations?
All these questions and more will be discussed at the event…
Happy New Year to all my readers!
Matthew Taylor posts on Demos’ report on character. Whilst he is generally welcoming of it, he raises some questions . First, he asks whether character capabilities always come as a bundle, so that having one means having all the others. Second, he asks whether it is really a good thing to possess such capabilities if they might do nothing more than support a complacent and self-interested middle-class lifestyle.
In response to the first question, it would seem that character capabilities do come as a bundle. The writers of the Demos report define character as application (sticking at things, being able to focus and concentrate), self-regulation (regulating one’s emotions) and empathy. It would be hard to exercise application if one was constantly distracted by powerful emotional surges. Similarly, empathising with others depends on one’s own emotions not continuously dominating. And the other way round: not being distracted by one’s own emotions unduly requires learning how to empathise with others and focus one’s attention.
The second question is whether character capabilities are necessarily good to possess – what about the individual who overcomes terrible experiences to become a brave person who does great things despite his or her initial circumstances? My response here is that people like this are probably the exception rather than the rule, and policy is about the many not the few.
Nevertheless, there is definitely a problem with a morally evacuated sense of character – one where the capabilities are simply skills that enhance (narrowly conceived) life chances. As Matthew Taylor says it is important to think of character in social terms. This means that developing it should not only enable autonomy, but also responsibility to others. But again, I feel that these characteristics go together – to be autonomous (to be able to run one’s own life) consists in possessing a socially acquired repertoire of skills that are sustained through continued social support. But it also depends on being able to see where one’s responsibilities lie so that one can get on with others, sustain friendships, be a good neighbour and so on. If one cannot get along with others in this way, one will not be much good at navigating different social terrain, and thus not that good at directing one’s life. Similarly, being responsible to others depends in part on being able to successfully run one’s own life. If one cannot, one cannot very easily motivate oneself to be there for one’s friends, neighbours, family and colleagues.
There are of course lots of shades of grey where autonomy and responsibility drift apart a little. Someone might be great at supporting others but rubbish at directing their own careers and thinking about their own well-being. And someone can be responsible to others in a self-serving and instrumental way – being seen as a ‘good person’ only for self-gain.
Ultimately I think character capabilities should be viewed as a core set of skills all should have the chance to possess. Beyond that, the more substantive morality that guards against people employing character capabilities to be complacent and self-serving is best left to the implicit social norms we understand and pass on to one another. So while I agree with Philip Blond and Edward Skidelsky that character must ultimately be guided by a substantive morality, I don’t think such a morality should be pursued or promoted by policy-makers (and I certainly don’t agree with Blond’s quasi-medievelist moral order). Let people keep passing on and adjusting variations of the morality we all broadly share for themselves, making sure policy-makers do not have too much influence on the ever-evolving patchwork of habits, practices and institutions that store it.
To promote character in this way is not to indulge in egregious social engineering – people are simply not that one-dimensional. If a schoolkid at Mossbourne Academy in Hackney learns character capabilities at school, he or she is not now paternalistically shaped into some middle class ideal of a person. He or she has simply learnt a new set of skills. What lifestyle he or she chooses is now more open, including completely rejecting middle class values. So character education should be about enabling people to be more autonomous and responsible, not making them be autonomous and responsible in a particular way. The way people employ the skills they learn will depend on the web of morality and norms they inherit, and their own reaction to that web. Let’s leave that bit to them.
Here is the link to a a pdf of the Social Brain report ‘Changing the Subject: How new ways of thinking about human behaviour might change politics, policy and practice’. You can also use the Scribd embed in the previous post to print it out or read it online, but unfortunately the download feature of the embed doesn’t work. I’m looking into it.
Happy reading and a Happy New Year to all.
I’ve just published a report that can now be downloaded (see below in this post for link).
In relation to the last couple of posts I’ve made, the gist of the report is that the challenge of social policy in the early twenty-first century is to develop the social institutions that in turn aid the full development of our social brains. I put it this way at a recent talk: the more we learn about what’s in our heads, the more we realise it’s what’s outside our heads that matters.
The idea is that to develop the essential skills that allow people to be responsible and autonomous, we need the forms of social interaction that enable the requisite skills to be learned and sustained. As we understand more about the brain, we realise that it is designed to develop and function with the aid of culture (i.e. social practices that are passed on). So for example, learning self-control seems to depend in large part on practising it in a supportive yet disciplining environment consisting of families, schools and the wider community. Take away or degrade that environment and it is really hard to learn the skill. So social institutions are simply the cultural means by which the norms and techniques are passed on that enable our learning of the skills we value.
As traditions broke down in the 60s and 70s (which of course in lots of ways was a brilliant thing) we lost some of the social institutions that countered the inbuilt weaknesses of our social brains whilst also developing their full potential. This meant that the cultural element at work in developing our social brains has in places withered.
This has given us two big problems. (1) There is an ‘inequality of autonomy’ as those people that did continue to evolve the social institutions that support and develop autonomy gained better and better life outcomes (particularly in a globalised world where autonomy is highly valued). (2) We lost or diminished some of the social institutions (flawed as they were) that allowed us to negotiate collective decisions (institutions such as firms and companies in business for the long-term, Trades Unions and political parties).
It is not right to say the consumerism of the last thirty years has been all bad. But it has done nothing to address the decline in the social institutions so important for our social brains. The challenge now is not to recreate old-fashioned traditions, but to create twenty-first century analogues of them. My pamphlet lays out the factors that should be taken into account when trying to do this. It is not a manual but a tool-kit that I hope might inspire others to think and act on this challenge.
Or if you wish, use the Scribd embed below. Although unfortunately, for some technical reason, the download feature doesn’t currently work on it.
Related to my last post on paternalistic libertarianism – the idea that expanding freedom might first require expanding seemingly paternalistic measures that inculcate habits and social norms – there is an article in the RSA Journal on Harlem Children’s Zone by James Forman Jr. The project is interesting because it blends (what might be considered) a right wing emphasis on discipline and the emulation of middle class values with (what might be considered) a left wing emphasis on providing greater social support. In this regard Forman Jr writes:
‘HCZ occupies an unusual place on the ideological spectrum, one that allows it to appeal to both sides of divisive social policy debates. Consider one example. If poor people are to improve their lives, should they change their behaviours or should society do more for them? Instead of choosing a side, HCZ’s model says that the answer is both. Drawing on decades of research showing that certain middle-class parenting techniques prepare children to navigate school and the world, HCZ teaches those techniques to Harlem parents. At the same time, it recognises that parental skills are only part of the puzzle. After all, poor parents already know what to do when their child says: “My tooth hurts”; the American scandal is that many parents cannot afford to take their children to a dentist. In response, HCZ provides medical and dental care for families that need it.’
I think this ideological mix is to be praised. For example, HCZ teaches parents to parent non-violently. This is quite paternalistic – teaching people a particular way of acting – but it is also progressive, being aimed at reducing violence. Lefties need to get over their frankly odd libertarian commitment to personal choice at all costs, and righties need to get over the idea that only ‘the old ways are the best’, for in fact, social institutions can evolve and change whilst keeping a connection to ‘tradition’.
I gave a talk at the BIOS institute last Thursday. It was a good audience that asked some good questions and my talk was hastily cobbled together.
I tried to argue, perhaps unconvincingly, that understanding our social brains means taking a renewed interest in the social institutions (families, schools, associative groups) that guide and support us to gain the skills to be autonomous and responsible (the skills to run our own lives and to take on both personal and social responsibilities). Self-control for example is learnt over time and through repeated practice. And because we know of the importance of processes of socialisation in developing and sustaining a skill like self-control (think of Avner Offer‘s concepts of ‘commitment strategies’ and ‘commitment devices’ – socially embedded methods and means of learning and continuing to stick to one’s long-term aims), the challenge for social policy is to invigorate, expand and create social institutions that carry out these processes.
The general ideal of ‘subjectivity’ I tried to put forward at the talk was that to be autonomous and responsible is to be higher up a scale of liberty. There is no absolute freedom from error or weakness – we are all on a sliding scale and people either have better or worse abilities to make choices that reflect their values and preferences, and which are responsible. Getting higher up the scale is causally connected to the skills one learns, and this is causally connected to the processes of socialisation one goes through. One might not need to know anything about the neuroscience of social brains to think this. But I think the neuroscience is still important because it corroborates and makes more convincing the view of subjectivity at issue.
The most interesting point to come out of this idea of a scale of liberty is a challenge to some common assumptions we might hold, both of them broadly libertarian.
The first assumption is that the characteristics of autonomy and responsibility are produced by willpower triumphing over circumstance in a vacuum. They are not. They are produced by willpower in concert with training, support and repeated practice.
The second assumption follows from the first. If autonomy and responsibility are intrinsic qualities of the will, then we work with them by offering choice, information, incentives and sanctions. But if they are repertoires of skills, then this neo-liberal approach is misguided. Skills might need to be built up first, until people people are further up the liberty scale. Then they can genuinely choose by committing to different options that reflect their values and preferences. Before such skills are learned, there may be no possibility of choice. Does a child who is hostage to powerful emotional surges have the choice to concentrate in class? Does the person who is surrounded by fear and aggression have the choice to be happy-go-lucky? There are always occasional exceptions, but by and large what people in such situations need is to learn the skills to choose well, to get further up the scale of liberty (which isn’t to say external conditions of deprivation aren’t important, it’s to say they aren’t the only things that are important).
This leads me to an interesting position I don’t quite know how to talk about without feeling a bit queasy. Call it ‘paternalistic libertarianism’ (as opposed to libertarian paternalism). It is the idea that the liberty to choose well depends in large part on a prior dose of paternalism. That the most radical thing we as a society could do to counter inequality would be to forget about the dogma of ‘personal choice’, and intervene quite strongly in people’s lives, so as to build up the capabilities that allow them to be more autonomous and responsible. Conversely, where people can do this for themselves, we as a society leave them alone. But we don’t just leave them alone. We expect them to contribute to helping others get further up the liberty scale.
Some examples of this approach being successful: the HCZ in Harlem has done utterly remarkable things by intervening quite paternalistically in people’s lives in order to build up capabilities (teaching parents how to parent, strict discipline in schools); Liam Byrne talked at the RSA about helping boys at a local school to do better academically with remarkable success, by teaching skills to parents; the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney gets amazingly good results in a deprived area with strict discipline.
None of these are simple returns to 1950s style ‘discipline for discipline’s sake’ approaches. They are all to a large extent ‘bottom-up’ – the communities they are located within support the policies in question, and perhaps this is the all important 21st century ingredient in ‘paternalistic libertarianism’.
This all raises uncomfortable questions for social liberals. The success alone of these institutions in closing the gap between rich and poor in terms of educational achievements should prick anyone’s ears. But perhaps social liberals (am I one? I think so), should confront their deep-seated love of personal-choice-at-all-costs. I never got taught grammar at school because someone decided for me that it wasn’t ‘nice’ (or something) for kids at comprehensives to have to bother. Thanks. As someone who grew up to love language I could have done with that capability, the freedom to choose to speak grammatically if I so wished, rather than the lack of choice I actually ended up with.